If Frank Zappa had decided to get into Saturday morning cartoons instead of music I imagine it might look something like what Ralph Bakshi did when he took over Spider-Man in the late 1960s. Personally, it was one of the cartoons that I watched and loved as a child in the early 1980s. I collected comic books and was a tremendous fan of Spider-Man. Those that fondly remember this animated series will no doubt recall the trippy visuals and the insanely catchy theme song that started and ended every show. The show first aired on ABC in September 1967 and those early episodes really managed to capture the essence of the comic book.
Spider-Man was created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko for Marvel Comics during the ‘60s. It featured mild-mannered Peter Parker (Paul Soles) who, after being bitten by a radioactive spider while attending a radiology experiment, acquires the ability to climb walls, leap and have enhanced endurance and strength while also possessing a “spider-sense” that allows him to anticipate immediate danger. He begins using his powers for personal gain and his selfish behavior contributes to his beloved Uncle Ben’s death at the hands of a burglar. Wracked with guilt, Peter vows to fight crime as the costumed webslinger Spider-Man.
In the cartoon, Peter is an anguished young man torn between his duty as Spider-Man and trying to maintain a normal life. His wisecracking webslinger persona is also successfully transferred over from the comic book as he gleefully messes with villains before defeating them. The crankiness of Daily Bugle newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson (Paul Kligman) is beautifully realized as he makes it his life’s work to expose Spider-Man as a menace and torment those around him with his arrogant demands.
The authenticity of the first season is due in large part to the influence of Stan Lee and John Romita, who made sure many of the stories from those early comic books were translated directly to the show. Spider-Man saves New York City from many of the source material’s most memorable villains: the Lizard, Electro, Mysterio, the Green Goblin, and Doctor Octopus. The show also featured some truly odd original bad guys as well: the Fifth Avenue Phantom, whose sidekick was a woman with shrinking ray vision, and the Sinister Prime Minister, who was armed with a walking stick filled with sleeping gas and shot deadly darts.
In the second season, Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat) came aboard as director, executive producer and story supervisor. Along with Gray Morrow, the show’s art director, they created an even more ‘60s influenced psychedelic look, with science fiction/fantasy-influenced stories (as opposed to ones based on the comic book) and groovy instrumental music by Ray Ellis that ranged from ‘60s dance music to eerie, atmospheric instrumentals that really helped establish an ominous mood when appropriate.
And yet, one of the strongest episodes of this season was the first one, “The Origin of Spider-Man,” which followed the comic book quite faithfully as Bakshi takes us back to where it all began as we see how Peter became Spider-Man. This included Peter discovering that he could crawl up walls and the creation of his web-shooters (two things that the feature film changed). At times, it feels as though Steve Ditko’s artwork has leapt from the pages and come to life. Bakshi also manages to insert some hilariously great period slang early on as we see Peter and his classmates on campus. It is also a fascinating snapshot of the ‘60s with an impressionistic take on New York City and trippy, abstract skies of all colors (at one point, a combo of yellow, green and black). This episode is a funky fusion of fidelity to the source material and Bakshi exerting his influence with a cool, jazzy soundtrack and a psychedelic ‘60s look, which is readily apparent in scenes like the one where Peter is bitten by a radioactive spider. The sequence is awash in trippy colors and odd sound effects.
Season 3 got even weirder as Bakshi was forced to cut costs even more by not only recycling animation from previous episodes, but also cannibalizing stuff from another cartoon, Rocket Robin Hood. This reached an apex with the episode “Revolt in the Fifth Dimension,” which was so out there that the network refused to air it! Early on, Spidey gazes into the trippy night sky full of washed out abstract watercolor paintings. Meanwhile, an alien race resides in Dimentia Five, a world that looks like it let Picasso loose to design its buildings. One of its inhabitants downloads their entire culture and takes off before their world is inexplicably destroyed.
In another, equally bizarre world, two insect-looking aliens pursue the one from Dimentia Five with their Psycho Army, causing the escaping craft to head for Earth where it crosses paths with Spidey. This episode features one amazingly surreal visual after another so that after a few minutes it feels like you’ve taken a hit of acid. At one point, Spidey avoids the fallen craft in a sequence saturated in red that anticipates Dario Argento’s stylish Giallo horror films by a few years. This episode is about as far as you can get from the Marvel Universe while still having one of its characters in it. More than any other episode, this one is a fantastic, subversive snapshot of the late ‘60s psychedelic era in all of its freaky glory and looking back at it now it wouldn’t look out of place if you dropped it in the middle of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998).
The Spider-Man comic book became very popular with children and teenagers who identified with Peter Parker and soon Marvel struck a deal for the superhero to get his own T.V. show. Krantz Films and Marvel contracted Grantray-Lawrence Animation, a cartoon studio out of California, to produce 52, half-hour episodes for the ABC network. However, the company went bankrupt so Krantz Films brought in Ralph Bakshi to executive produce the rest of the episodes in New York City. The voice cast was members of a voice artist company led by Bernard Cowan out of Toronto. This was done to avoid the residuals demanded by the Screen Actors’ Guild in the United States. The famous opening and closing theme song was performed by a vocal group while Paul Francis Webster wrote the lyrics and Bob Harris provided the music.
To cut costs and to meet the network’s deadlines, Bakshi saved time and money by reusing certain sequences over again and often resorted to having Spidey swing around the city to pad out episodes. He also utilized techniques like superimposing lip movement over static characters. Cost-cutting got so severe that Season 3 heavily reused animation and storylines from the first two seasons with animation also taken from Rocket Robin Hood, which only added to the surreal vibe. One has to remember that he was working on a shoestring budget, with a very small crew and under a strict deadline.
Spider-Man first aired on Saturday mornings starting on September 9, 1967 with the second season starting on August 30, 1969 and finally the last season on March 22, 1970 on Sunday mornings. How much you will like this incarnation Spider-Man really depends on the nostalgia value it holds for you. The animation is dated, in a wonderfully kitschy way. Sure, it is pretty crude by today’s standards — simple renderings with little background detail and lots of repetition (in some episodes it seemed like Spidey spent half the time swinging through the city) — but that is part of its charm. What it lacks in slick technique it more than makes up for in content and sheer gonzo logic (or lack thereof). In terms of style, Bakshi pushed the envelope more than any other superhero cartoon before or after, for that matter. I loved the cartoon when I was a kid and even more so now that I appreciate what Bakshi was doing.
McCorry, Kevin. Spiderman. http://kevinmccorrytv.webs.com/spidey.htm
Further reading: an excellent look at the music for the show.